Running in colder climate conditions takes quite a bit of planning.
I am not the hugest fan of cold weather these days, as stepping outside for the first morning chilly exercise session makes my entire body tighten up. I know that this subtropical region I live in provides a few months of unusually cold weather with icy rain, so it’s not too awful to don extra clothing to reap the endorphins my body craves through running.
If you live in the northwest or Midwest regions of the country, chances are you have a bevy of winter running clothes at hand, and the mere mention of “layering” comes naturally to you.
I admire those who run day after day in extreme conditions. I did it for many years with excitement, until my fingers continually turned white (even with gloves on), my toes were constantly frozen, and despite the fact that running heated up my body nicely where I was able to shed layers during the course of the run, I still managed to get colder than normal immediately after I finished. A hot bath has been my friend for years when the temperatures dip below 50 degrees.
Most running wear designers who cater to the cold-weather runner have tested and proven just what fabrics will work, how to layer them properly, and who is most suited to wear each piece based on length of run and how cold the weather plans to be.
It is a science and an art.
I recently sat in on a running focus group here in Austin and was in awe of the stages of getting a product from the prototype to the actual running store market. Shoes and apparel are big business in running and once it gets cold, the more you need and wear, the more these manufacturers smile with success.
I even commented during this focus group that a main reason I choose the running shoe that I do is not only durability in cold weather conditions, but they have to be pretty. Ha! Such a girl.
The trick to cold weather running starts with your first layer.
If you are used to the summer months of light cotton, and plan to put on an undershirt (made of the same fabric) prior to your extended layers, you’ll be chilled to the bone before you know it.
Cotton is the worst fabric for running in the cold.
It doesn’t allow the sweat to wick away from your body. It simply sits heavy against your skin and you will be trembling before you even start one foot in front of the other. Not always fun. If your body leans towards the colder side, that first layer has to be a fabric that pulls the sweat (yes, you do sweat in the cold) away from the epidermis and continues to balance the temperature of your body. Otherwise, a trail run will find you skipping the stretch after your run and jonesing for that hot chocolate post haste.
I will start out with about three layers, the first one being light and capilene, the second being a bit more dense and composed of the same fabric, and then top it off with a light fleece vest. If the wind is too much, I’ll add a light windbreaker as well. But, I tend to shed the layers every single time, so I need long sleeves to wrap each piece of clothing around my waist, which adds to my weight and definitely expends a few more calories to boot.
Take a peek at a few fabric choices and how to specifically layer for the average runner, given a rather normal body temperature. The best way to determine what would work best for you is to experiment with a 40-minute run in the colder weather. See how your body feels and if you were comfortable throughout the workout. If not, start the layering process.
Begin with a semi-warm body, but not too many layers, as it will feel like shell-shock when you begin to peel away the clothes before your run.
1. Polypropylene, capilene, and some wool/synthetic blends—these fabrics wick away moisture from your body and keep you as dry and warm as possible. This should be your first layer, right down to your socks. Stay away from cotton despite its popularity since the 70’s and 80’s, as I mentioned above, as this fabric has very little insulating ability and will leave you cold, wet, and uncomfortable.
2. A protective shell—it is crucial that you wear some sort of clothing to protect you from the wind and possibly colder weather precipitation. Gore-Tex is a popular material that does the best job of keeping moisture from entering into the body from the outside, while releasing the inside moisture from your skin. Nylon is also a quality material, and can be more affordable.
Just make sure that if you stash your clothing somewhere along the run, you remember where you put them, as this material is rather expensive to leave behind.
3. Cover your exposed skin areas—your body loses a majority of its heat through the head and hands, therefore a hat and gloves are absolutely essential to cold-weather running. Once you are well into the run and feeling almost too hot, then it is okay to shed the hat and gloves, and only if you are comfortable. If the outside is almost unbearably freezing, a face mask will help, as does covering your face in Vaseline to ward off the cold. The hat is the first to come off for me.
I let out a big “aaahhh” once I remove it, as I can hear nature once again.
4. Thin layers versus heavy layers – the key to a quality cold weather run is to not add too much bulk, otherwise you will be way too uncomfortable and hot. This also applies to your socks. Two pairs of capilene or very light wool socks is considered okay, but be careful that they don’t cause your shoes to fit too tight, as this alone will make for some unpleasantness and potential blisters.
Heavy upper garments are also too cumbersome and hot for many runners. Stay away from heavy fleece, if at all possible. Even if you are very cold to start, this material is difficult to run with, and usually ends up in stashed in the bushes. Keep with the thin layers, and be mindful of that first one closest to your skin.
Here is another simple checklist with temperature ranges and what clothes to think about before you set foot out the door:
40-49 degrees—long sleeved t-shirt, shorts, tights, or wind pants. Light mittens or gloves.
30-39 degrees—polypropylene long-sleeved t-shirt with an added light t-shirt on top, long tights or shorts, mittens or gloves, hat over your ears.
20-29 degrees—thicker long-sleeved polypropylene or capilene t-shirt, long tights and shorts, wool/synthetic socks, mittens or gloves made of light fleece, hat over the ears.
10-19 degrees—wind suit (top and pants), long-sleeved polypropylene t-shirt, tights, wool socks, mittens or gloves, thick hat over the ears.
Any temperatures below 10 degrees will require a facial mask, possibly Vaseline applied to the face, and the same above regular cold-weather layering, oh and lots of grit and determination.
You don’t have to subject yourself to the treadmill when temperatures hover in the single digits during the winter months. Simply prepare yourself to have a great experience because you have invested in some quality fabrics.
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Editor: Cat Beekmans